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Parents Television Council Report on Sex on TV

posted by Nell Minow

The Parents Television Council released a new report on the way sex and marriage are portrayed on prime time television this afternoon.
Today’s prime-time television programming is
not merely indifferent to the institution of marriage
and the stabilizing role it plays in our society, it seems
to be actively seeking to undermine marriage by
consistently painting it in a negative light. Nowhere is
this more readily apparent than in the treatment of sex
on television. Sex in the context of marriage is either
non-existent on prime-time broadcast television, or is
depicted as a burdensome rather than as an expression
of love and commitment. By contrast, extra-marital
or adulterous sexual relationships are depicted with
greater frequency and overwhelmingly, as a positive
experience. Across the broadcast networks, verbal
references to non-marital sex outnumbered references
to sex in the context of marriage by nearly 3 to 1;
and scenes depicting or implying sex between nonmarried
partners outnumbered scenes depicting or
implying sex between married partners by a ratio of
nearly 4 to 1.
(emphasis in the original)
Most likely due to the competition from cable, DVDs and online media, broadcast television is spending more time on edgy, exotic, transgressive, and disturbing depictions of sexual behavior for the purposes of entertainment, not on a sympathetic or illuminating manner but usually as the source of humor or in the context of law enforcement dramas.
…Even more troubling than the marginalization
of marriage and glorification of non-marital sex on
television is TV’s recent obsession with outré sexual
expression. Today more than ever teens are exposed
to a host of once-taboo sexual behaviors including
threesomes, partner swapping, pedophilia, necrophilia,
bestiality, and sex with prostitutes, to say nothing of
the now-common depictions of strippers, references
to masturbation, pornography, sex toys, and kinky or
fetishistic behaviors. Behaviors that were once seen
as fringe, immoral, or socially destructive have been
given the imprimatur of acceptability by the television
industry — and children are absorbing those messages
and in many cases, imitating that behavior.


The report’s major findings included:
Across the broadcast networks, references to
adultery outnumbered references to marital
sex 2:1.
? Although the networks shied away from talking
about sex in the context of marriage, they did
not shy away from discussions of masturbation,
oral sex, anal sex, manual stimulation, sex toys,
bondage or kinky or fetishistic sex – there were
74 such references during the study period.
? The Family Hour — the time slot with the
largest audience of young viewers, where
one might reasonably expect broadcasters to
be more careful with the messages they are
communicating to impressionable youngsters –
contained the highest frequency of references
to non-married sex as opposed to references
to sex in marriage, by a ratio of 3.9:1. During
the 9:00 and 10:00 hours, the references to
non-marital versus marital sex averaged 2.5:1.
? Visual references to voyeurism (a third party
present, watching or taping while sex takes
place), transvestites/transsexuals, threesomes,
kinky sex, bondage and sado-masochism, and
prostitution outnumbered visual references to
sex in marriage by a ratio of 2.7:1.
? Content descriptors, which are intended to
alert parents to inappropriate content and
work in conjunction with the V-Chip to block
such content as parents may find unsuitable
for their children were often lacking or
inadequate. Every network had problems with
the consistent and accurate application of the
“S” and “D” descriptors.
? Of all the networks, ABC had the most
references to marital sex, but many of the
references were negative. References to nonmarital
sex, by contrast, were almost universally
positive or neutral.
? In 46 hours of programming, NBC contained
only one reference to marital sex, but 11
references to non-marital sex and one reference
to adultery.
? References to incest, pedophilia, partner
swapping, prostitution, threesomes, transsexuals/
transvestites, bestiality, and necrophilia
combined outnumbered references to sex in
marriage on NBC by a ratio of 27:1.
? On NBC, there were as many depictions of
adults having sex with minors as there were
scenes implying or depicting sex between
married partners (a 1:1 ratio).
? Fox broadcast only one reference to marital
sex in 24.5 hours of programming, but
18 references to non-marital sex and five
references to adultery.

But more damning than its numbers are its examples, page after page, from every network, of sexual references and situations that are demeaning and without any intimacy or tenderness.
The Council calls on broadcasters and advertisers to “be more careful in their treatment of sexual situations during prime-time hours when impressionable children are in the viewing audience, opting for less graphic visual content, and favor storylines that don’t encourage promiscuity, glamorize criminality, or denigrate monogamy.” They are not asking for censorship or a return to the twin beds of “I Love Lucy.” But, as their slogan says, “because children are watching,” we should urge the broadcasters who make use of the public airwaves and the advertisers who rely on our good opinion try to do better.

  • jestrfyl

    Long ago, when I was a student in the Broadcasting Dept, I did some work on reports like this. As part of the project I read the number of instances cited and when possible, the actual lines (this was pre-VCR days). Many of the references were neither as inflammatory or even as descriptive as they seemd in the report. It leads, once again, to the discussion as to whether TV (broadcast or vable) leads our culture or simply relfects it. For the most part, except for the most obvious or egregious examples (where writers are working hard at being obnoxious), TV is reflective of the lives people lead. As much as we would want it to model good lives, that does not sell. Instead it reflects who we are or at least how we (think) we see oursleves.
    All surverys like this are subject to more inquiry and should not be taken as they are presented. This group, like so many others, presents material like this in order to win and keep support (my cynical self says).

  • Dulce M. Suarez

    Television not only reflects a part of our culture but indeed leads those not yet there to it. By portraying these images time and time again, they tell our young that this behavior is part of culture and is acceptable…enough so to be put on television. Children do not understand this sort of fantastical sexual imagery. They imitate what they see on television. There is a time and a place for sexual content and behavior and that is at any time we chose in the privacy of our homes. Sex is only sold to those who view it as a means to self-gratification. It is time that our so-called culture changed the view on television depicting sex in the manner the report sets forth. It is high time we portray sex in the positive procreative method for which is was intended by our creator, anything else is just twisted and so are those who support that sort of expression.

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